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Kyiv's ancient normality
A little history can help us see through the myths
More than a thousand years ago, Viking slavers found a route they were seeking to the south. It followed the Dnipro River through a trading post called Kyiv, then down through rapids even they could not master. They had slaves carry the boats, and left runes on the riverbank to mark their dead. These Vikings called themselves the Rus.
The ancient domain of Khazaria was breaking up. The Khazars had stopped the advance if Islam in the Caucasus in the eighth century, at around the same time as the Battle of Tours. Some or all of the Khazar elite converted to Judaism. The Vikings supplanted the Khazars as the tribute collectors of Kyiv, merging customs and vocabulary. They called their leaders "khagans."
As the Vikings came to understand, conversion to a monotheistic religion could mean control of territory. The pagan Rus apparently considered Judaism and Islam before converting to Christianity. The ruler believed to have converted, Valdemar (or Volodymyr, who Russians, much later, called Vladimir), had first ruled Kyiv as a pagan. According to Arab sources, he had earlier ruled another city as a Muslim.
Colorful this is, but normal. Vikings contributed to state formation throughout Europe, at the cusp of millennial conversions. Kyivan Rus was normal in its marital politics, sending a princess to marry the king of France. Its succession struggles were typical of the region, as was the inability to resist the Mongols in the early 1240s.
Thereafter most lands of Rus were gathered by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This was in a certain sense also normal: Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Kyiv then passed a civilizational package to Vilnius. Christianity had brought Church Slavonic to Kyiv. Created in Byzantium to convert Slavs in Moravia, Church Slavonic was then adopted in Bulgaria and in Kyivan Rus. In Rus it provided the basis for a legal language, now borrowed by Lithuania.
Lithuania merged with Poland. Ruled from Vilnius and then Warsaw in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Kyiv remained a center of European trends. It was touched by the renaissance language question: ancient or modern? In western Europe, vernaculars triumphed over Latin. In Kyiv matters were as usual richer in complication: Latin came to rival Church Slavonic as an ancient option, and the Polish vernacular eclipsed the Ukrainian one among elites. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the language question was answered by Polish. It was replaced by Russian as the elite language in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the twenty-first, Russian has yielded pride of place in politics and literature to Ukrainian. The language question found a typical answer.
Kyiv and surrounding lands were touched by the Reformation: Ukraine was in this sense typical, but colorfully so. Elsewhere the Reformation pitted Protestantism against a revived Roman Catholicism. In Ukraine, the dominant religion was eastern Christianity, or Orthodoxy. But rich Ukrainian magnates invited Protestants to build churches, and incoming Polish nobles were Roman Catholics. In 1596 an attempt was made to merge Orthodoxy and Catholicism, which led to yet another church, the Uniate, or Greek Catholic.
The religious wars that followed were typical, if intensified by an accumulation of factors. The Ukrainian-speaking peasantry was oppressed in order to generate an agricultural surplus for Polish-speaking landlords. The elite in the country spoke a different language and practiced a different religion from the bulk of the population. The Cossacks, free men who had served as effective cavalry in the extraordinary Polish-Lithuanian army of the day, rebelled in 1648. They took all of these Ukrainian causes as their own.
Some northeasterly territories of old Rus followed a different pattern after the Mongol invasion. From a new city, Moscow (which had not existed under Rus) princes gained authority by collecting tribute for the Mongols. A new entity, Muscovy, asserted its independence as the western Mongol empire fragmented. It first moved south, then east, in an extraordinary campaign of expansion. In 1648, a Russian explorer reached the Pacific, as the Cossack rebellion began -- some seven thousand kilometers away. The stalemate between Poland-Lithuania and the Cossacks allowed Muscovy to turn its power west and gain territory.
When Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy made peace, in the late seventeenth century, Kyiv lay on the Muscovite side. Its academy was Russia's only institution of higher education, and its graduates were valued in Russia. Kyivan churchmen told their new rulers that Ukraine and Russia shared a common history; that seemed to give them the right to tell it. Muscovy was renamed the "Russian Empire" in 1721 by reference to ancient Rus, which had been defunct for half a millennium at that point. Between 1772 and 1795, Poland-Lithuania was partitioned out of existence, and the Russian empress (herself a German), proclaimed that she had restored what had been taken away: again, the myth of a restored Rus. In the late nineteenth century, Russian historians offered a similar story, one which downplayed the Asian side of Russian history, and the seven hundred years in which Kyiv had existed beyond Russia. This is more or less the story that Putin tells today.
In actual history, Ukraine never ceased to be a question. A national revival began in the Russian Empire not long after the remnants of Cossack institutions were dissolved. In the nineteenth century, its center was Kyiv. Bans on the use of the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire pushed the revival to the Habsburg monarchy, where it was aided by a free press and free elections. Ukrainian life continued in Poland after the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918.
After the First World War, Ukrainians tried to establish a state on the ruins of both empires. The attempt was typical for the time and place, but the difficulties were extreme. Ukrainians found themselves amidst an unenviable crossfire of Russian Whites, the Red Army, and the Polish Army. Much of the "Russian civil war" was fought in Ukraine; by its exhausting end, the Bolsheviks needed some answer to the Ukrainian question. That is why the USSR took the form that it did in 1922, a nominal federation of national republics. When Boris Yeltsin removed Russia from the USSR in 1991, he signed an agreement with Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet leaders, representing the official founding entities of the USSR.
Ukraine was the deadliest place in the world during the time when Hitler and Stalin were in power, between 1933 and 1945. It was seen as a breadbasket from both Moscow and Berlin. Collectivization of agriculture led to a political famine that killed about four million people in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. A similar desire to redirect Ukrainian food supplies animated Hitler's war planning. The first major German mass shooting of Jews, at Kamianats' Podils'kyi, took place in Ukraine. The largest instance of the Holocaust by bullets, at Babyn Iar, was the murder of Kyiv Jews.
Stalin and Hitler began the Second World War as de facto allies against Poland. In 1939, they agreed that Poland would be divided and its eastern half controlled by the USSR. In the end, those same formerly Polish (west Ukrainian) territories were added to Soviet Ukraine in 1945, as were some lands from Czechoslovakia . Crimea was transferred to Ukraine nine years later. In this way, the Soviet Union formed the boundaries of Ukraine, just as it formed the boundaries of Russia, and of all of its component republics.
The histories of Ukraine and Russia are of course related, via the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, and via Orthodox religion, and much else. The modern Ukrainian and Russian nations are both still in formation, and entanglements between them are to be expected, now and into the future. But Russia is, in its early expansion and contemporary geography, a country deeply connected to Asia; this is not true of Ukraine. The history of Kyiv and surrounding lands embraces certain European trends that are less pronounced in Russia. Poland and Lithuania and the Jews are indispensable referents for any account of the Ukrainian past. Ukraine cannot be understood without the European factors of expansive Lithuania and Poland, of renaissance, of Reformation, of national revival, of attempts at national statehood. The landmarks of the world wars are planted deeply in both countries, but especially so in Ukraine.
The history of Kyiv is, so to speak, normal in the extreme. It falls easily into a normal European periodization. The additional complexity and intensity of these typical experiences can help us see the whole of European history more clearly. Some of these references are different, or absent, in Russia. This can make it difficult for Russians (even in good faith) to interpret Ukrainian history, or the history that is "shared": the “same” event, for example the Bolshevik revolution or Stalinism, can look different from different perspectives.
The myth of eternal brotherhood, now offered in bad faith by the Russian president, must be understood in the categories of politics rather than history. But a little bit of history can help us to see the bad faith, and to understand the politics.